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Ask The Expert : What is wrong with being a perfectionist?

It has been brought to my attention at my recent appraisal that some of my colleagues think I am a perfectionist and that this is having a negative impact on my work.  I am struggling to find the motivation to make changes as I don’t really see what the problem is ……

Perfectionism becomes a problem when you are so focused on doing well that, in reality, your performance suffers.  The line between very high standards and severe angst can be exceedingly thin.  In working life we try to do our job without making mistakes.  How much effort we put into this and the impact it has on the rest of our lives differs greatly from person to person.  Are perfectionist attitudes actually holding you back?  To work this out we will outline some of the pros and cons of being a perfectionist and, if you do decide this is an issue for you, we have some suggestions as to how to go about changing.  One thing to keep in mind is that perfectionists rarely see themselves as having a problem – it is often feedback from others or an event, like an unexpected criticism, that makes us consider whether it is an issue.

Pros of perfectionism

  • With high personal standards it’s easier to meet others’ expectations
  • Perfectionists tend to be very organised as anything you have done in the past is streamlined which can mean less wasted time and effort in the future
  • Polished end result – Once you have completed something it is probably as good as you can make it
  • Excellent attention to detail requires fewer fixes later on

Cons of perfectionism  

  • It can feel like a phobia about making mistakes
  • Simple tasks can become large time consuming ones
  • Perfectionists can be quite overbearing towards work colleagues and people may feel that they can never do things right which may thwart creativity
  • Sometimes things don’t need to be perfect as perfection isn’t always as important to everyone else as it is to a perfectionist.  The perfectionist tends to do more work and this may not pay off in the end, i.e. the law of diminishing returns.
  • Can lead to stress and anxiety – no one can be perfect all the time – humans are fallible beings!
  • Procrastination can be a side effect because you can be put off starting as the job of doing it perfectly seems overwhelming.
  • Frustration/ difficulty trusting others to do a job up to your standards
  • Frustration and resentment at others lack of effort to do things to the same standard
  • Perfectionists can find it hard to enjoy the process as they are always focused on the end result

Are you a perfectionist?  
A good starting point may be to ask yourself the following questions.  It might help to try and think about a particular piece of work as you think through the following questions:

  • Are your standards higher than those of other people?
  • Are you able to meet the standards you set for yourself?
  • Are other people able to meet your standards?
  • Do your standards help you to achieve your goals or do they get in the way?
  • What would be the benefits of relaxing a particular standard or ignoring a rule that you have?  (It might be worth speaking to colleagues/ friends to answer this one – at this stage you might find it difficult to see the positives in relaxing your own standards)
  • How do you interpret your own inevitable mistakes and failings?  Do they make you feel bad about yourself in a global sense?  Do you think anything less than 100% might as well be 0?

Is your perfectionism a problem?  
Do you consider anything less than perfect to be completely unacceptable?  If so, this can lead to obsessive behaviour and can have damaging effects on your overall quality of life.  Perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety disorders, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorders and insomnia.

Tips to Control Perfectionism  

  • Get to know your perfectionism – become aware of your thinking patterns and behaviour and the effect on your life and those around you, what are your triggers?
  • Challenge your thinking – a tip from cognitive behaviour therapy which is commonly used for training anxiety and depression (a full description of the process can be found by putting “challenging negative thoughts” into an internet search or go to our Challenging Negative Thinking Habits page).
  • Change your behaviour by exposing yourself to what you fear – practise making mistakes. For example send out an email with typos in it, overcook the tea etc.
  • Record your thoughts – writing down your thoughts by definition makes you more aware of what can be changed…e.g. journal writing….its a bit like when you learn a new word and then start noticing people using it.
  • See the positive as you have probably become an expert at seeing the negative (see realistic optimism).
  • Learn to handle criticism.
  • Thought stopping – hear yourself saying “shoulds” “musts” etc.  Just say “stop” to yourself or use an affirmation such as “my best is good enough”, “I accept myself just as I am”, “I am doing my best given the situation and time, looking at all the factors involved”.
  • Replace negative statements – practise this and write down a few options to practise in times of stress.
  • Milder wording – to yourself – try to speak as though you were talking to someone who was very fragile and you didn’t want to hurt their feelings.  Be compassionate towards yourself.
  • Try to have the same standards for yourself as for others.
  • Open up about your mistakes – this will help you to realise that others will not condemn you.  In fact research suggests that mistakes can make people warm to you because you have shown vulnerabilities.
  • Make a list of all the things in your life that are more important than being perfect.  Are you spending time trying to perfect less important things and neglecting the more important aspects of your life as a result?
  • Learn to laugh…..what is the worst thing that can happen?  You might have been overly dramatic in predicting the worst…
  • What else makes you feel good about yourself other than doing things perfectly?  Write down a list of things that make you feel happy and good about yourself…this will help with establishing new habits.
  • Finally …”Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey!” Barbara Hoffman.


And remember …

  • To enjoy moments of happiness
  • To stop doing things for the sake of perfect standards and start doing more of what you enjoy
  • To be more aware of your surroundings and environment and being more “in the now”
  • To make an effort to be thankful.  It is easy to stop noticing the good things in life … health, warmth, shelter, food, friends, family … anything positive in your life


This article’s expert was Jan Lawrence

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